Soil Security Programme at University of Reading

“In this recent post, Professor Chris Collins and Web Communications Officer Jeremy Lelean talk about the Soil Security Programme at the University of Reading.”

While we are all aware of the benefits clean air and water provide, the benefits of soil to society are less well understood. For example, we cannot have clean water without soil. It is also vital for providing food, and the storage of water and carbon.  But our understanding not only of how soil performs these multiple functions, but also its ability to adapt to land use and climate change, is relatively limited.  The Soil Security Programme (SSP) will address these knowledge gaps, adopting a novel, multi-disciplinary, multi-scale approach to:

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  • Improve forecasts of how soil reacts to climate and land use changes
  • Fundamentally comprehend how soil performs multiple functions
  • Understand how soil functions from the laboratory to landscape scale

Funded by four partners (NERC, BBSRC, Defra, and the Scottish Government), there are three projects coordinated by a small team at the University of Reading led by Prof Chris Collins.  The projects are:

  • Controls on the stability of soils and their functioning under land use and climate change, investigates what makes a soil able to withstand and recover from disturbance events, such as drought, and how can we use this knowledge to ensure soils can buffer disturbances in the future. The researchers’ hypothesis is that more complex food webs are more resilient to disruption.
  • SoilBioHedge: harnessing hedgerow soil biodiversity for restoration of arable soil quality and resilience to climatic extremes and land use changes investigates the migration of soil-dwelling species from areas of richness, such as hedgerows, into the cropping area. If we can improve the species richness of the arable fields we may reduce our reliance on input of chemicals and allow reduced cultivation enabling more sustainable soil management.
  • U-GRASS: Understanding and enhancing soil ecosystem services and resilience in UK grass and croplands, uses high-throughput genetic techniques to investigate the microbial composition of soils. It will be sequencing the microbes in soils under different management regimes and at specific points in the landscape e.g. arable areas, extensive grasslands to determine if these can be modelled to optimise beneficial processes such as nitrogen cycling within a particular landscape/management scenario.

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The SSP links with the Soil and Rhizosphere Interactions for Sustainable Agriculture (SARISA) Programme (funded by NERC and BBSRC) which comprises four projects with a stronger focus on agricultural systems.  The SSP coordination team will help develop the next generation of soil scientists with a more multi-disciplinary, community based research approach adding to the programme’s longevity.  Particularly developing the post-doctoral researchers as an independent part of the soil research community.  The SSP also interacts with the Soil Training and Research Studentship (STARS) Centre for Doctoral Training offering support to PhD students in soil science.  Further early career research is supported by the appointment of four Soil Security Research Fellows.

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More details of the SSP and its activities are on the website:  or you can follow on Twitter: @soil_security.

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Chris Collins is Professor of Environmental Chemistry at the University of Reading.  His expertise is in the cycling of pollutants and elements in soils, providing inputs to system and risk models.  He currently serves on the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee and the Veterinary Products Committee for Defra.